One might think that after the failure of the long-awaited Rapture to materialize at 6pm on Saturday May 21st, legions of credulous fundies would admit defeat and join the steaming ranks of shame-based human doings. And one would be wrong.
Since the time of Jesus, committed Christians have been predicting the Apocalypse — in fact, Jesus himself probably started it. His mentor John the B. and ace publicist St. Paul certainly knew the end was near. And with so many failed predictions come pew-loads of bereft believers.
Or not. What happens when prophecy fails?
The clinical term here is “cognitive dissonance,” which is a topic in social psychology championed by psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. His Theory of Cognitive Dissonance holds that when people have two conflicting “facts” in their heads, they seek to reduce the tension between them. As, say, when someone knows the world is going to end on 5/21 (Fact #1) and it doesn’t (Fact #2).
How is this tension resolved? Well, the person has to minimize the truth value of one or the other. And because of their emotional (perhaps even financial) investment in Fact #1, it’s usually Fact #2 that falls victim.
Here the games begin. Festinger didn’t think believers were stupid: they knew their conviction had bumbled. They can tweak or edit or rationalize, but there’s always some tension left. So what do they do? Something rather strange:
“There is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced,” Festinger wrote. “If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct.”
Thus, failure lends emotional momentum to greater proselytizing — not apostasy. People confound.
Festinger’s original experiment, described in a recent essay by Chris Mooney in Mother Jones, is mondo gonzo. Having read a newspaper headline “Prophecy From Planet Clarion Call to City: Flee That Flood,” about a cult surrounding a Minnesota homemaker named Marian Keech, Festinger and two intrepid colleagues infiltrated the cult and started taking notes.
Keech believed she channeled Guardians via automatic writing. A being named Sananda from the planet Clarion (coordinates unknown) told the Lake City, Minnesota dweller that he was the reincarnation of Jesus and that her hometown would be destroyed by a flood on December 21st. Festinger and his new cult-buddies waited in Keech’s kitchen overnight and found they were not evacuated in alien spacecraft to elude the flood. There was no flood.
What did they do? Resolved the dissonance. Of the eleven non-spying members, only the two most “lightly committed” quit. The rest, observed Festinger, were “more strongly convinced than before.” Keech just revised the date.